3TFO: Seahawks @ Falcons, NFC Divisional
For a team with the best record in the NFL and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons are getting surprisingly little respect as a Super Bowl contender. Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you consider that the Falcons made the playoffs in three of Matt Ryan’s first four seasons as quarterback but he hasn’t yet won a playoff game.
If this is going to be the year to get it done, they’ll have to take down a Seahawks team that’s been one of the league’s hottest in the second half of the season. Seattle, led by a stellar defense and its rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, looks to shut down the explosive Atlanta offense, while overcoming a long week of travel.
Will Ryan and the Falcons finally get that playoff monkey off their back, or will the Seahawks keep their surprise season alive? Let’s take a look at some key matchups that should play a part in which team advances to the NFC Championship.
All Eyes on Bruce
A significant question for the Seahawks is who will the void left by defensive end Chris Clemons, who was moved to IR this week after suffering a knee injury early in the wild-card victory against Washington. And the void is substantial. Clemons accounted for 11 sacks in addition to a combined 48 hits and hurries, and was our fourth-highest graded 4-3 DE rushing the passer. The Seattle front was moderately successful getting to the quarterback a week ago, pressuring the Redskin QBs on 31.3 percent of drop-backs, though they were much more effective against the less mobile Kirk Cousins late in the game.
Against the Falcons and less mobile Matt Ryan, they look to be in better position as they were against Cousins, because they’ll face a more traditional passing offense without the threat of a running quarterback or the read-option. Of course, the veteran Ryan will pose his own unique challenges. He’s a better pure passer than his Washington counterparts, more adept at recognizing and avoiding pressure despite his limited running ability.
One player we’ll be watching to pick up the slack in Clemons’ absence is rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin. Used primarily as a nickel pass rusher, he’s played roughly 45 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season (close to 80 percent of them passing plays), with that number rising to 60.7 percent against Washington. Irvin notched 46 QB disruptions this year, including four last week, and was actually slightly more productive per snap than Clemons.
It will be interesting to see how the Seahawks use Irvin because he has lined up much more often on the left side of the line; 60.5 percent of his snaps have come at DLE with 17.5 percent at DRE. When you include one-, two-, and three-man lines that number rises to 77.8 percent on the left side versus just 19 percent on the right side. Clemons played the majority of snaps lined up on the defensive right side, and the difference between the two makes sense considering Irvin rarely directly replaced his teammate.
Where Irvin plays will determine the player tasked with blocking him, in this case either left tackle Sam Baker or right tackle Tyson Clabo. Baker is particularly fortunate that Clemons is now out, as he’s our 28th-rated tackle in pass protection after giving up six sacks and an additional 39 hits and hurries. Clabo had a rough start to the season, especially against Charles Johnson, but bounced back in the second half and finished strong, grading better than +1.8 in six of Atlanta’s final seven games; he ended the regular season with 35 total pressures allowed. Based on his tendencies through the previous 18 weeks, Irvin will likely face Baker on first and second downs — of Irvin’s 85 snaps at DRE, just two have come on third down — whereas on third downs, look for him to switch back to the left side and rush Clabo. We could also see more of Greg Scruggs on base downs. Scruggs is bigger and a slightly better run defender than Irvin, seeing most of his playing time as an interior rusher in nickel situations. But against Washington, Scruggs played eight of his 14 snaps at right defensive end – all of them coming after Clemons left the game.
In just his rookie year, Irvin has actually been pretty diverse in terms of getting to the quarterback, as evidenced by the fact that 34.8 percent and 15.2 percent of his pressures have come via inside and bull rushes, respectively, compared to 26.1 percent on the outside. He plays with surprising power and leverage, frequently taking advantage of opponents that give too much respect to his exceptional speed. He’s visibly hesitant when he has to play the run, though, which should benefit Baker, who will block him on more run-focused downs. In pass blocking, Baker has been more susceptible to outside rushes (40 percent of pressure allowed vs 36 percent to the inside), though 9 percent lower than the league average at LT on those moves. And his pressure allowed has been pretty evenly distributed between downs. On the other hand, Clabo is close to the league average at RT for distribution of pressure by rush type. In terms of downs, though, he’s shown clear improvement from first to third, with close to twice as many total pressures allowed on first down. It appears that he’ll often face Irvin at his strongest.
White and Jones vs Browner and Sherman
There’s no question that the Seahawks have had one of the NFL’s best pass defenses led by their two huge boundary corners, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. The Seattle back seven has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 62 percent of passes for a 77.7 QB rating, but if you look at the two manning the outside, those numbers are even better. Sherman finished the regular season as our top-rated corner, having allowed just 47.1 percent of passes thrown in his direction to be completed for a meager 41.1 QB rating, with a ridiculous eight interceptions and 15 additional pass defenses.
However, with 15.5 yards per completion allowed – one of the higher marks among CBs – offenses can certainly gain some big yards if they’re able to get past him. His teammate, Browner, hasn’t been quite as good in terms of getting his hands on the ball, as evidenced by his three interceptions and five pass defenses, but has allowed an equally impressive 54 percent completion rate and his long pass given up went for just 43 yards. Imposing in press coverage, he can sometimes be susceptible to double moves, as we saw on a few plays in the first round against Washington. Both Browner and Sherman have been among the more penalized corners in the league, in part due to their physical coverage.
They’ll be facing a team that passes close to 65 percent of the time to one of the top WR combinations in the league in Atlanta’s Roddy White and Julio Jones, our fourth- and 11th-graded wideouts in terms of pure receiving. White lines up on the offensive right at RWR on roughly 55 percent of snaps, compared to 26.8 percent at LWR, so it appears that he’ll match up against Sherman most often, who spent 81.4 percent of his snaps on the season at LCB. Jones plays most often on the offensive left at LWR (61.9 percent) though he’s lined up at the opposite outside position more often than his teammate at 29.7 percent. Given that trend, he’ll see a lot of snaps against Browner, who has played 88.5 percent of his snaps on the defensive right at RCB and has lined up at LCB on just two snaps this season.
As the Falcons have undoubtedly scouted the Seahawks’ secondary position tendencies, it will be interesting to see if they attempt to exploit the fact that Sherman and Browner stay almost exclusively on the outside by playing Jones and White in the slot more often, putting less threatening players outside, and thus getting more favorable matchups on the inside against defenders such as Marcus Trufant. It would be equally fascinating to watch how Seattle responds should the Falcons use this tactic; Sherman would be more likely to shift inside, though he’s still done that very rarely.
Jones and White have compiled strikingly similar receiving numbers this season, even when looking at average depth of target, as White’s 12.79 average depth is only marginally higher than Jones’ 12.63. However, the Falcons have targeted them much differently in terms of route combinations. Jones has been targeted more than twice as often on screen passes, and is also thrown at much more on deep routes, with 47 targets on posts, corner, or ‘go’ routes, compared to just 28 for White, who has been used more frequently on intermediate and possession type routes, with 15 more targets on in/out routes and comebacks; he was also thrown at 22 more times on crossing routes. For the Seahawks, there hasn’t been a significant variation in defending certain types of routes, though they have fared the worst on in-routes, surrendering a 93.8 QB rating. Opposing offenses have rarely tested them on corner routes, with just six attempts all season (two completions).
Look for much of the most exciting action to occur on first downs, where the Falcons have been extremely aggressive. Ryan has thrown the ball 8.68 yards downfield on average on first down versus just 6.04 yards on second down – likely in part due to effective play action and the ability to go for ‘shot plays’ on that down. Their aggressiveness is also reflected in the numbers for the receivers, particularly White, whose average depth of target was a ridiculous 17.46 on first down and fell more than 10 yards to 6.51 on second down. Jones was targeted furthest downfield on first down at 14.81 on average, but with a much smaller drop off on subsequent downs. It’s also worth looking at Ryan’s tendencies to go to one receiver versus the other; the two were pretty evenly targeted on first down, but after that there are clear differences: Jones has been the preferred player on second downs and White on third. Conversely for the Seahawks, Sherman has been at his best on first down, allowing a 36.8 percent completion rate, with only 23.7 percent of attempts going for a first down. Browner excelled on third down, as he gave up a 2.41 YPA and allowed a first down on just 17.6 percent of attempts.
A final area to watch in this matchup is on the plays when Sherman and Browner receive safety help, particularly from Earl Thomas. Thomas hasn’t been great in the regular season – he ended as our 35th-graded safety – but few teams boast a deep safety with such impressive athleticism and range. This was on display last week with 3:54 remaining in the second quarter, when he made a great play by breaking on and intercepting a deep pass. If he can provide that type of coverage against the Falcons, it could be a long day for Ryan.
Stop the Run
If there’s been one area in which the Falcons have shown vulnerability, it’s been run defense. They’ve allowed 4.8 yards per rush overall – a mark that ranks as the league’s fourth-highest – with averages of 5.1, 6.1, and 4.8 in their three losses. Unluckily for them, the Seahawks come in with our highest-rated rushing attack, averaging 4.8 YPC as a team. They are led by the bruising Marshawn Lynch, fresh off a 132-yard performance in which he forced six missed tackles.
Atlanta has had particular problems stopping the run on first down, surrendering 5.1 yards per rush. They haven’t been much better on second and third downs either. Given these problems, don’t be surprised to see a Seattle offense that runs the ball on 57 percent of first downs keep the ball on the ground even more frequently. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Seahawks run on a higher percentage of plays in ‘11’ personnel and other three- and four-receiver sets. While they use the ’11’ personnel grouping on only a third of their offensive snaps, well below the league average, and pass the ball more often when they do, the Falcons are allowing 5.7 yards per rush when in their nickel package.
The Falcons have had the most trouble defending runs to the right of center (where they’ve allowed 5.3 YPC, including over 6 yards per on runs to the right B-gap and off right tackle). The Seahawks, who are clearly strong in all directions, have had the least success behind the sub-par blocking of right guards John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy, who have each graded negatively for their run blocking efforts. Luckily, whichever guard is in the game will face Atlanta’s equally underwhelming interior defensive line, led by Corey Peters and Johnathan Babineaux. Combined, the duo received a grade of -15.5 in run defense during the regular season.
But it’s not just on the defensive line where the Falcons have struggled to stop the run. Thomas DeCoud is among our lowest-graded safeties, while Asante Samuel and Sean Weatherspoon are each the lowest-graded player at their position in run defense. Five Falcon defenders have missed at least 10 tackles on the season, led by DeCoud (21) and Samuel (18). That’s not an encouraging sign against Lynch, who averages 2.77 yards per carry after contact and has forced 58 missed tackles on the ground. Fortunately for Atlanta, he may not be his usual destructive force, as he’s been limited in practice this week by a foot injury.
If Lynch is limited on Sunday, the bulk of the carries will go to Robert Turbin, who, while not Lynch, has been solid this season, averaging 4.4 yards and forcing 10 missed tackles on 80 carries. Turbin has been significantly better on runs between the tackles, averaging just 2.9 and 3.8 yards per carry on runs to the left and right edges. And don’t forget about Russell Wilson. The Seahawks’ quarterback has been a dangerous runner himself, especially as the team has increasingly included the read-option in the offense. Against the Redskins, Wilson carried the ball four times and gained 35 yards on designed runs, including an 18-yard run up the middle on an inside zone.
Another reason the Falcons need to slow down the Seattle rushing attack is to decrease the effectiveness of play action. Only the Redskins used play action more often this season, as Seattle play-faked on 37 percent of Wilson’s drop-backs. Can Atlanta do something they haven’t done all year and shut down the Seahawk rushing attack? Odds are they’ll need to if they are going to come away with the victory.
Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_JManey